Much has been discussed this offseason about the Yankees' need to fill what some would say are rather large positional holes on the roster. Not much has been mentioned regarding the need to address upgrading the bullpen, and why would they? The Yankees bullpen was very good last season, finishing second among AL bullpens in both baserunners allowed per nine innings and ERA (with a below-average defense behind it) and third in K/BB ratio.
However, a number of key injuries to relief pitchers and some underperformances necessitated unexpected names to step up. Which is to say, if you had Wandy Peralta and Clay Holmes being key parts of the Yankees’ second-half success in 2021 on your preseason predictions, then you’re smarter than I am. Additionally, if we anticipate that bullpen makeup will always fluctuate and be dynamic to a certain extent (there aren’t many Mariano Rivera’s out there) and the game’s evolution to get more innings out of the bullpen* will continue, the Yankees may look to add bullpen depth this offseason. If they do, and they’re looking for a reliable arm to come out of the bullpen in the seventh or eighth inning of a close game, they could do a lot worse than Brad Boxberger.
*In 2021, the Yankees got more innings from their starters than 10 AL teams and still needed almost four innings per game from their bullpen.
Yankee fans may remember Boxberger as the All-Star closer for Tampa Bay in 2015 who led the AL in saves. After injuries limited him to only 53.2 innings over 2016 – 2017, he struggled to get his groove back over 2018 and 2019 with Arizona and Kansas City respectively. Then, after a solid 2020 shortened season in Miami, Boxberger put up a very good 2021 season with the Brewers.
Among 67 relief pitchers in MLB last season to throw a minimum of 60 innings, Boxberger finished 13th in K%-BB% and 23rd in opponents OPS+. His strikeout percentage came in the 90th percentile across MLB, while his xwOBA and hard-hit percentage both came in at the 77th percentile, and he registered his lowest xFIP since 2014. By season’s end, he had accumulated 1.1 bWAR, 0.8 fWAR, and 1.3 WARP – which is to say, he was pretty valuable for a relief pitcher.
Perhaps as telling as advanced statistics is the manner in which Boxberger was used in 2021. The Brewers, generally considered a forward-thinking organization in both the front office and with the coaching staff, didn’t utilize Boxberger in meaningless, mop-up situations. 41 of his 70 appearances came in high leverage situations (the highest percentage of high leverage appearances for him since his All-Star 2015 season). 49 times he entered the game in the seventh or eighth innings, and in 42 of those appearances the game was tied or the Brewers held a lead of two runs or less. Considering the Brewers won 95 games and won the NL Central last season, that’s showing a lot of confidence in the pitcher.
Furthermore, as a right-handed pitcher, Boxberger was actually more effective against left-handed batters than right-handed batters last season, so worrying about late-inning platoon matchups isn’t too much of a concern when using him.
All of the above sounds impressive, so you may be wondering why he wasn’t snatched up immediately by a team that could really use a reliable late-inning reliever. There are a few things to consider, the first of which is the BABIP against him. For six consecutive seasons, opponents batted between .286 and .297 on balls in play against Boxberger, then it dropped to .257 in 2021. Although that may not seem like a massive change, it is unusual, and it becomes even more curious when we look at his heat maps.
The changeup looks a little better, but there were plenty of fastballs and sliders (which combined makeup almost 80 percent of his arsenal) that found the middle of the zone. It wouldn’t be crazy to suggest that despite the good strikeout rate, given the BABIP and the heat maps that perhaps some good fortune was on Boxberger’s side in 2021. Boxberger also had his worst month of the season in September, perhaps suggesting his season innings total of 64.2, which tied for the highest of his career, was starting to catch up to the 33-year-old.
If your position is that the Yankees should pass on Boxberger, that’s certainly justifiable. The Yankees’ bullpen isn’t exactly a weakness, and despite the strong 2021 season, Boxberger is not a premium closer type relief pitcher and he’s well past the wrong side of thirty. However, if Brian Cashman is considering adding bullpen depth to give Aaron Boone another option in the seventh and eighth innings (and for some of the reasons mentioned above) there are far worse calls he can make than one to Boxberger’s agent.